Thoughts on the Alive Web

Sun, Jun 19, 2011 - 9:14pm -- Isaac Sukin

If you stay up-to-date with what's in vogue among the technology elite, you've probably heard about If you haven't, let me tell you: it's a website where you listen to music with other people. And when I say with other people, I mean it looks like your avatar is standing in a club with other people listening to DJs up on a booth. You can rate the song as "Awesome" or "Lame," chat with other clubbers, and even DJ if there's a free spot. DJs get points for awesome songs that let them get new avatars. It's absurdly addicting. And so the tech world has been abuzz with praise that has typically failed to see the really important lessons here.

There are a couple of things that make turntable addicting:

  • Points for awesome songs. People have written for years about how game dynamics can make websites more immersive, but turntable's simple system works really well here. Points aren't just a means of getting new costumes, they're also an amazing way of representing community reputation.
  • It feels real. When you click "Awesome" for a song, the needle on a meter increases, and your head starts bobbing. You're standing in a room that looks like a club in front of a stage with DJs on it. You can chat with the other people in the room. The only difference between this and a club is that you have to mix your own drink.
  • It's simple. Really. You click the Facebook Connect button and you're into the site. Click on a room with the kind of music you're interested in and you're listening to music curated by the people on stage. Click "play music" if there's a DJ slot available and you're up on the stage playing music. It's easy and it's fun.
  • People love music. Turntable succeeds above all because it's familiar. People instantly recognize the club atmosphere and have a strong association with it. It's better than Pandora because there are actually real people choosing good music that you may easily never have heard before. And if you don't like what you hear, you can vote that it's "Lame" and influence what gets played.

But what turntable represents is more important than turntable itself. Om Malik wrote the only article I've seen that started to capture the significance of all this when he talked about what he called the alive web -- a web that is focused on action and interaction instead of transmitting static information. Imagine a world where the activities you used to do offline are now suddenly online -- and not in the form of text and buttons, but of real interaction with people and things.

Imagine, for example, the experience of walking into a shopping mall. You enter a store and consider buying a shirt. You're not sure if you like it, so you put it down and move on.

Now picture how that experience translates online today. You go to a store's website, look at a picture of a shirt, decide you're uncertain and move on.

Finally, imagine how that experience could play out online. You have an avatar decked out in the latest gear. You enter a virtual store and check out a shirt. You're not sure if you like it, so you consult the other people in the store. Someone with a lot of style points -- a clear indicator of fashion sense -- thinks it's tres cool. A few other people weigh in to agree, noting that it's a great deal here. You discuss how much you like this store and lament the fact that other stores' clothing just doesn't fit as well. Then you buy the shirt, feeling good about yourself. And your reputation goes up.

Where else can this be applied? Let's say you want to find a movie to rent on a Saturday night. You could go to Netflix and browse their selection, with hit-or-miss results. You could physically head to your local Blockbuster and rent a DVD. Or, conceivably, you could walk around in a virtual Blockbuster, comparing your tastes with others and getting opinions from respected community members. And the result is the same for any industry in which real-time feedback from perceived experts is valuable.

This isn't Second Life. For one thing, the barrier to entry is much lower. For another, there is a real reputation system. And it all runs in your browser. It's all a game, and nobody loses.